From Belvidere Road the school looked much the same, the same row of mid-Victorian merchants’ houses with the addition of a surprising modern annexe to the south. And the nuns from the next-door convent who kindly threw back our over-shooting tennis balls were long gone, the building now taken over by the school.
We came in through the front door of number 17, passed the office of the school secretary who once dispensed aspirin for every ailment (stubbed toe, broken heart), into the entrance hall hung with stretched- out school photos of girls in summer dresses lined up in rows, the teachers sitting, the little girls cross-legged, the older ones standing on benches. And there we were, aged thirteen or fourteen.
We turned right into what had been the assembly hall, now the greatly expanded library, where our year, under the direction of drama and elocution teacher Miss Dodsworth, had once mounted a sixth-form production of Anastasia. It was fifty years on since we last threw our berets in the air and departed school forever. In the meantime we had lived whole lives – college or university, first jobs, careers, marriage, children, grandchildren, retirement. We came from all over the country – from Elgin in Scotland to the south coast of England and beyond that from France and the Balearic Islands.
Some of us had arrived at Belvedere from the junior school having passed the promotion examination in which we were required to write a paragraph about a puffball and tell the story of the the life of Lord Nelson or Sir Christopher Wren. Others came via the eleven plus. Despite the excellence of Liverpool’s grammar schools, our parents had chosen Belvedere for us (or some might have chosen for ourselves.) It was a direct grant school offering an academic education, but also a kind of ethos which is hard to pin down: it wasn’t exactly a school for bluestockings, but it valued academic excellence even if it didn’t always quite manage to supply it. Its staff were overwhelmingly unmarried, women who had gone into teaching as a vocation. That rubbed off, I think, in terms of self-confidence. We felt a bit special.
In the library staff had laid out back issues of the school magazine in which we could find our poems, our drawings, our exam results. Some of us had brought our own memorabilia – Rosemary Todd wearing our old school tie, others with photos, exercise books, school prizes. You spend every weekday for seven years with the same people, and though you weren’t friends with all of them (you coalesced into groups according to the subjects you were studying), you nevertheless share common memories. The past is never over, it is with you all your life.
We had lunch. We talked and talked and talked and talked. I think school reunions are sometimes overshadowed by a competitive boasting about respective accomplishments, my career, my husband, my children – not us. Do you remember . . . ? Which teachers inspired us? Which classes did we hate? How did so many of us leave without a trace of a Liverpool accent? How did we get round the skirt length rule? The regulation shoes rule? Did that dank basement we were given for our sixth form common room still exist? Who remembered doing the Cavern stomp in the assembly hall? Who recalled the end of our first term when the girls of the departing sixth form mimed to the Beatles Love Me Do, wearing the Beatles actual Hamburg leather jackets (one of them was going out with George Harrison)? Who remembered the awful winter of 1962/63? After lunch we were left to wander about the school, vastly expanded, but finding still old classrooms we recognised by their location. Outside Miss Ward’s office a melancholy art nouveau stained glass window I often gazed at while waiting to be called in for some misdemeanour, dedicated to a girl who died, erected by her mourning parents in 1921.
The staff long ago, did not select Jennifer Herbert to be our head girl for no reason. She organised the event brilliantly and got all of us to dinner at a pan-Asian restaurant above the Mersey ferry terminus at the Pierhead, greeting us with a couple of magnums of prosecco. Half a century seems like an absurdly long time to wait to be reunited but we finally did it. I suspect that some friendships, once reconnected, will not be pulled apart again.
Written by Linda Grant
Author and Belvedere alumna